Interview with a Selby Botanical Museum Artist
By Christina Failla
Photography by Christina Failla
October 14, 2020
I sat down with artist Olivia Marie Braida-Chiusano, an artist featured in the Selby Museum of Botanical Arts. She is a very interesting and accomplished person, who also has a business here, in the Sarasota area, teaching botanical artistry in her Academy of Botanical Arts which she established in 2004. The Academy became the official Academy of Botanical Art of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. I was very much interested in finding out how she became involved in painting the art of flowers and what inspired her passion for the subject. I was interested in finding out what sparked her interest in nature and what in life occurred that brought her to be the wonderful artist that she is today. I was curious how she, as an artist, sees the subject of a flower, as opposed to a non-artistic person who merely sees the beauty of a flower and appreciates it, for how one has received it as a gift, for example, or places it in a vase in one’s home. I wanted to know if a positive attitude influences her creativity, are her creative juices always flowing or whether she has to be in a certain state or mood. Creative abilities often manifest in other areas of one’s life, such as in home design or cooking, for example, and whether she found this to be true for herself. Her work appears in the Selby Museum of Botanical Arts, and can be seen there, when visiting the Orchid Show during October and November. Olivia Braida-Chiusano answered the following questions in her words:
Q: How old were you when you became inspired by this art? Was there someone specific in your life, like a parent or grandparent, that inspired your interest in this type of art? What is your strongest memory about art from your childhood?
Braida-Chiusano: I was born in New York City and my mother was an artist, who had her own gallery Ray-Craft Studio on Lexington Avenue. She introduced me to museums at a young age of eight years. I often traveled to the museums by train, in my early teens, by myself. It was always a very exciting adventure.
Q: Who were the artists that inspired you? What’s your favorite artistic influence?
Braida-Chiusano: I would stand in front of the Rembrandt paintings and follow the lines of his delicate work with my eyes. I fell in love with Vermeer, Caravaggio, John Singer Sargent. In those masterpieces, it was the realism and use of perspective that struck me most. The skill level in those paintings made them come alive, come off the canvas. This spoke to me deeply.
Q: Where did you get your education in botanical artistry? Who were your teachers?
Braida-Chiusano: I was trained in classical ballet until my teens by a Hungarian Prima Ballerina. Then my mother taught me to sew clothes. By the time I was 18, I was designing, sewing and selling clothes. My mother encouraged me to pursue art or fashion design. During and after college, I studied oil painting, pottery, jewelry design at the Art Students League, Parsons, The Reilly League of Artists, and with private teachers. I became attracted to the creative side of business and worked in New York advertising agencies which I found extremely creative. Eventually, I started a national transportation company with my husband in New York which we owned and ran for 13 years. After we sold our business, I took a trip to the New York Botanical Gardens, where I studied Botanical Art, and received my Certificate in Botanical Art & Illustration.
Q: What sparked your interest in botanical art that made you so passionate about it? What has been a seminal experience in your new life as an artist?
Braida-Chiusano: At the Gardens, I studied with many wonderful teachers, including Anne Marie Evans who was teaching in the United States from England. She introduced me to the style of the French Court Masters, and I was hooked; it demonstrated a high level of classical realism through perspective. Anne Marie Evans encouraged me to travel and study in England, where I had the opportunity to see the original work of Ferdinand and Franz Bauer at The British Museum, the original work of William Hooker at the Lindley Library, and the famous Vélins at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) in Paris.
Q: What role does botanical art play in our society?
Braida-Chiusano: Botanical Art is a universal language that records the world’s many plant species. Information gained by these illustrations, when combined with an understanding of pollination, allows researchers to discover, analyze, and classify plants. These discoveries and confirmations develop pharmacology, agriculture, and horticulture. The beauty of this art form is beyond botany for it is the foundation of our evolution.
Q: In this Selby exhibit, you show two large pieces: Prayer and Celebration. How did you start these pieces, what is your process, how long does it take to complete these large works, and are all your works large?
Braida-Chiusano: Not all of my paintings are large, but all begin with research, so I understand the plant’s natural habitat and natural habit. The research is combined with initial sketches. Then precise “key element studies” of the plant are made so that it’s morphology is understood correctly and portrayed. Photographs are taken of all parts of the subject from all viewpoints and at all stages. The information is prepared, collected, and placed onto a Research Board for easy reference. Then compositional studies are created until I am satisfied with the layout of the subject. I follow Kimon Nicolaїdes (1891–1938) rule and look to see how the “Composition arises out of the subject.” Once determined, the initial layout is refined. A tonal study is made to develop perspective. Then a complete color pencil study is made to see if the color balance works properly. At this stage, I can make changes to the design. A “cartoon” is made. This is a template of the design which is transferred to watercolor paper. Often more changes are made. Then preparation of the paint begins, and this can often take 2 or 3 days. Finally, the painting begins. These large works take approximately 500 hours to complete. If the subject is cooperating, a large piece can take 3-4 months. If there is a delay in blooming, if the design is even larger, then more time is needed. Photographs are used for reference because the plants change so quickly. Flowers fade, die, and often you need the reference to confirm your initial drawings.
Q: I understand that you have created a school, “The Academy of Botanical Art”. How does The Academy of Botanical Art function?
Braida-Chiusano: At the Academy of Botanical Art, the curriculum has been established through a series of books I have written. There are 27 texts, that provide a classical way of learning. The program lessons are designed to establish a rhythm that develops confidence, as well as skill. Inside the various courses, projects are included to take students out of the botanical box, push their boundaries, challenge their creative genius. Students can take one or all of the program’s offerings. If they complete the full program, they can receive a Selby Academy Diploma.
Q: Your artistry must come from the core of your soul. What is it that you are able to pass on to others? What does teaching accomplish for you?
Braida-Chiusano: There have been many opportunities in my life to teach others, as a teenager, as a business owner in New York, and as an artist. I have had the opportunity to study with some wonderful teachers who shared their knowledge and love of teaching with me. I enjoy the excitement that comes from helping others to succeed. Over the years, teaching has proven to be a way of learning. The challenges of students become my challenges; their hurdles are my hurdles; their questions demand answers and solutions that help us both grow. Together we both expand, not only as artists, but as visionaries for the work we do, want to do, and new ways to do it. So, at the end of the day, the teacher’s role is beyond building and teaching structure. It is unleashing a wide-open canvas of opportunity. Building blocks help you build; courage and inspiration help you fly.
Q: Do you select your subjects based on commissions?
Braida-Chiusano: I select my plant subjects based on curiosity, availability and client request. When I work with clients, very often it is a matter of what they may be interested in and what will work well in their home. It becomes a collaborative effort and their involvement, makes the anticipation for the finished piece, that more exciting. Some paintings are “one of a kind” exclusives.
I spent an interesting afternoon with artist, author and educator, Olivia Marie Braida-Chiusano. She sparked my interest in this subject. Her beautiful art is displayed throughout her home, her studio and the Museum of Botanical Arts at the Selby Gardens. If interested in this artistic adventure, please sign up for her botanical art courses at the Academy of Botanical Art, OM ART Designs, Monday-Saturday from 10:30 am to 3:30 pm, located at 2068 Sunnyside Lane, Sarasota, Florida. You can register by calling (941) 953-9999. Workshops at Selby Gardens may resume soon in January. It would be an inspiring and positive activity for a group of friends to pursue.
Olivia Marie Braida-Chiusano
Artist, Author, Educator
Academy of Botanical Art
an OM Art Designs Company
2068 Sunnyside Lane
Sarasota, FL 34239
“Join the Academy today and let your inspiration be tomorrow’s masterpiece.”